'Girlfight': Think 'Rocky' With a Feminist Hook
By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 29, 2000
"It's not the size of the dog in the fight, it's the size of the fight in the dog": The hand-lettered
maxim, among many tacked to the peeling, sweat-splattered walls of a Brooklyn gym, certainly
applies to "Girlfight," a scrappy independent film that packs the same emotional punch as "Rocky."
Michelle Rodriguez as a high school boxer and Jaime Tirelli as her coach in writer-director Karyn Kusama's first film, "Girlfight."
James Bridges Screen Gems via Associated Press
Like Rocky Balboa, the film's girl fighter is her own worst enemy depressed, undisciplined and uncommunicative but she, too, achieves personal growth through a physical regimen. The world of boxing, however, is only the backdrop for the teenage protagonist's rite of passage. Diana Guzman (Michelle Rodriguez) is sullen, confused and incapable of controlling the rage fueled by the contempt of her domineering father, Sandro (Paul Calderon).
In a film largely free of stereotypes, Sandro is a stock villain portrayed without nuance or
sympathy. He may be an underemployed clod, but in most ways he could pass for any number of
bullheaded movie dads. He expects Diana and her younger brother, Tiny (Ray Santiago), to live
by his rules, no matter how irrelevant to their generation. To that end, he forces the bookish boy
to take boxing lessons and treats Diana like a low-rent Cinderella.
Diana, a high school senior, is just one fight shy of expulsion when she discovers boxing and
secretly begins training with Tiny's coach, Hector (Jaime Tirelli). At first she's seen as an intruder, but in time she wins wary acceptance from her male peers. And Hector, who initially tells her that girls just don't have as much power as boys, is reconsidering his sexism. After all, boxing has always been a great social leveler for minorities the Irish, blacks, Hispanics so why not women?
Karyn Kusama, the film's astute first-time writer-director, climbs over the ropes with Diana and
her opponents. At least it seems as if the camera takes the punches, a frightening flurry of
Although the movie contains violence in context, it's neither excessive nor celebratory. There are
no slow-motion showers of cinematic blood, no jaw-cracking sound effects. Kusama, however,
doesn't back away from the realities of the sport. Diana goes home with a shiner and small
consolation, while her adversary winds up with a split lip and a split decision. The verite of this small, grungy realm is enough for Kusama, who delivers the sweet with the science.
Although the story builds to an implausible gender-blind matchup between the heroine and another
featherweight, Diana's transformation is sufficiently believable to survive the contrivance.
Rodriguez, a gifted first-time actor, can glower up a storm and then, when she meets the right
sparring partner (Santiago Douglas), melt like a frappe.
Blessed with the athleticism and cheekbones of pro basketball goddess Teresa Witherspoon,
Rodriguez was built for the role. Douglas, a TV actor making his American film debut, provides
strength and, yes, vulnerability as well as sinew and sex appeal as Diana's romantic interest.
Their love story nicely mirrors the feints and jabs of ordinary screen romances, only other lovers
seldom end up clutching in the ring. "I love you," Diana whispers before she clobbers her honey
with a heartfelt left hook. The relationship is a rocky one, but then it would have to be.
Oh, well, a kiss will make that boo-boo feel all better.
Girlfight (113 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for language.